palace of the governor steve mellard
house of the turtles gerard grandjean
nunnery east building c.1863 desire charnay
Uxmal (Thrice built), together with Sayil and Labna, is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is the largest, most elegant, and most important ruin site in the Puuc area. The Pyramid of the Magician is a truly magnificent structure. Equally impressive is the Governor’s Palace and the Nunnery. The majority of the structures seen today date from the Late Classic (600-900 CE).
The site contains numerous architectural groups which include pyramids, palaces, and a ball court. Sacbeob (raised white stone roads) interconnect the groups and extend out to nearby associated sites such as Nohpat 5.25 miles/8.5 km to the southeast. From there a sacbe extends further down to the important site of Kabah.
Uxmal is located in the western Yucatan off of Highway 261, about 42 miles/70 kms south of Merida, along the “Puuc Route”. This site is one of a series of Maya ruins that can be found in the general area and its architectural style is named after the low, arid hill country in which they are located. Others are Kabah, Sayil, Xlapak, and Labna.
HOURS: 8 A.M-5 P.M.
ENTRANCE FEE: $5.40/90 Pesos, plus $25/417 Pesos Yucatan Tax Agency fee, Total $30.40/507 Pesos. Museum $3.50/65 Pesos; Parking $1.75/30 Pesos; PRICEY!
GUIDES: Yes U.S. $30 for English, Check current pricing
SERVICES: Restrooms; book, gift and snack shop; ATM
ON-SITE MUSEUM: Yes
ACCOMMODATIONS: There are a number of hotels within walking distance.
GPS: 20d 21' 54" N, 89d 46' 30" W
MISC: Sound & Light show 7P.M. winter, 8P.M. summer, extra fee check for latest price increases and restrictions
Ceramic evidence points to an early occupation at Uxmal dating back to 800 BCE. The structures one sees today dates from the Classic Maya era (600-900 CE) and its architecture is termed Puuc style. This type of architecture features a lower, plain wall section with the upper part profusely decorated with geometric mosaics, serpents, Chaac masks, and figures. Peak population has been estimated at around 25,000 inhabitants. The site features a number of quadrangle groups ringed by palace structures entered through corbel vaulted arches. It is set on an axis about 10 degrees east of North, with the exception of the Governors Palace which is nearly at 28 degrees east of North.
Maya chronicles of the Chilam Balam relate that Uxmal was founded c.500 by Hun Uitzil Chac Tutil Xiu. The earliest recorded date recovered so far is 569 CE. There is scant glyphic information concerning the rulers of Uxmal. Two stelae have been recovered that name one ruler, K’ak’ Pulaj Chan Chaak,(‘Lord Chac’) and his parents Chac Uinal and ‘Lady Bone’. His late reign is determined to have been c.890-910 CE. It was during his reign that some of the most elegant and impressive structures were built. Extended titles of this ruler include ‘tzeh kab kin’ (Left hand of the Sun), and ‘K’ak'nal Ajaw’ (K’ak'nal Lord), where K’ak'nal, House/Place of Fire, has been suggested to have been the original name of the site, or to a specific structure/group within.
It has been noted in Spanish colonial documents that Uxmal was one of the few inhabited ruin sites at the time of the Conquest. It was the main capital of the Xiu, who ruled here until about 1050 CE, after which time the site experienced a decline in population with the Xiu eventually relocating to Mani. The Xiu along with the Itza were the two main cultural groups of the Yucatan from the Classic period forward. There was a reoccupation of the site during the Post Classic (1200-1500 CE).
Uxmal was first reported on by Friar Diego Lopez de Cogolludo in the 17th century. Jean Fredrick Waldeck visited the site in 1838 and published a report. Next came those intrepid explorers John Lloyd Stephens and Fredrick Catherwood in the 1840’s. Their books are a fascinating read with exquisite renderings of the ruins. These books are highly recommended, and give the modern traveler a great perspective from this time period.
Desire Charnay visited and photographed Uxmal during his 1851-61 expedition. There followed Sylvanus Morley in 1909 who produced a more detailed site map.
Excavation and restoration work started in earnest in the 1920’s by the Mexican government. In 1930 the Tulane expedition, led by Frans Blom, produced drawings, and photographic images by Dan Leyrer. Also, plater mold casts were made that reproduced a replica of the Nunnery North Building that was displayed at the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago. Excavations and consolidations continue under INAH.
Uxmal consists of several groups, many of which are large courtyards surrounded by palace-type structures. The first structure encountered when entering the site is the highly unusual Pyramid of the Magician, also known as The Pyramid of the Dwarf. This unique oval shaped pyramid is over 93 feet/28 meters in height. It was built over five times, with each newer and larger structure superimposed over the other, as was usual with Maya construction techniques. It features a broad west-facing stairway that leads to a temple structure at the pyramid summit.
The earliest structure, Temple I, is still partially exposed at the western base. This structure contains the earliest recorded date; 569 CE. The second structure, Temple II, is accessed through a hole dug into the main stairway. Temple II and IV have entrances at the top of the pyramid. One of these entrances is through an intricately carved stone mosaic mask facade of the rain god Chaac, and is done in the Chenes style of architecture. This style was very prominent to the south of the Puuc area, and was also found at some northern sites such as Chichen Itza. The final structure, Temple V, is built over the roof comb of Temple III. There are a number of Chaac masks that line the outside of the staircase. These temple constructions span an era of about three hundred years. A truly exceptional pyramid. The west side of the pyramid base had minor structures incorporated into it. These face onto a small quadrangle courtyard called the Courtyard of the Birds.
The Courtyard of the Birds has elongated palace-type structures on its west, north, and south sides. In the center is a small, low platform that features a large stone column. The south structure has a portico that is accessed between eleven columns, and is nicely preserved. There are three chambers that are arranged behind the portico. The north structure is partially restored and exhibits three entrances into separate chambers. The central chamber is accessed between three columns. Behind this structure is small courtyard with a nice archway that at one time led into the Nunnery Quadrangle.
The west side of the courtyard has three individual structures that join together to take up the whole west side. The main structure, House of Birds, has some nice decorative elements, including numerous depictions of protruding carved birds. The south cornice shows a serpent’s head with a figure emerging from its open mouth. The central structure has a beautiful archway that leads directly into the Nunnery Quadrangle.
The Nunnery Quadrangle is a very impressive structural group. Of course, this has nothing to do with nuns, and its name, like many others throughout the Maya area, is an unfortunate holdover from the Spanish colonial period. This group rings a very large courtyard featuring highly decorated one-story palaces oriented to the cardinal directions.
This group is accessed from the West and the South Buildings, with the West Building featuring a beautiful archway. Each structure has an elongated rectangular shape with the structure built on a low platform containing a broad stairway. The upper façade of each is beautifully worked in stone veneer depicting geometrical patterns and elaborate Chaac (Rain God) masks.
The North Building, considered the oldest and most important, is also the longest at about 270 feet/82 meters, and is set on a high platform base. It contains numerous stacked Chaac masks on the cornice and interspersed within the façade of the structure. Also present are carefully carved, intertwined stone representations of the feathered serpent set within geometric patterns across the façade. It contains eleven double vaulted rooms. At either side of the stairway, and built into the platform base on the courtyard level, stands a temple, one known as the Temple of Venus.
The South Building is the main entrance to the courtyard and incorporates an undecorated portal arch. Carved representations of Indigenous style huts surmounted by Chaac masks are found on the inside walls of its eight doorways. The East Building contains 5 doorways and shows a conservative use of decorative mosaic stone. The West Building was the last built and incorporates outside architectural influences and has some of the richest decoration in the group. Above the central doorway is an interesting mosaic stonework throne with a feathered canopy containing an anthropomorphic figure of a turtle with a human head.
Behind the Nunnery to the west is the Stelae Platform, on which were grouped a number or carved stone slabs (stelae) erected to commemorate different historical events. A bit southwest of this is what’s called the Cemetery Group. This group features a nicely restored temple featuring three entrances divided by columns, surmounting a pyramid base platform. It is located on the north side of a small courtyard. The courtyard is surrounded by low platforms featuring distinctive blocks of carved skulls and crossbones.
Following the direction south from the Nunnery leads to the Ball Court. This structure is of typical design, set on a north/south axis, and has open ‘end zones’. An imbedded stone ring displays a series of glyphs that names ‘Lord Chac’ and a dedication date that corresponds to 901 A.D. The upper superstructures have been reduced to rubble through the passage of time.
To the east of the Ball Court is a very fine linear structure named the Temple of the columns. This structure houses a single galley that is accessed through eleven columns. The façade is in poor condition, but displays a triple colonnette/drum motif interspersed by plain sections, as well as some stepped fret mosaic designs. Directly south from here is the Governor’s Palace.
The most impressive, and one of the more beautiful buildings in Uxmal, is the Governors Palace. It is set upon a massive, three-tiered platform base measuring about 471 feet/143 meters x 517 feet/157 meters. The structure itself is a stunning 320 foot/96 meter long architectural gem set upon a secondary low platform with staircases on both the east and west sides. The building displays two soaring arches, among the highest in the Maya World, whose passageways divide the building into three sections. At an unknown time in antiquity these arches were filled in with cut stone. Above the medial molding a frieze runs the entire length and consists of over twenty thousand masterfully cut pieces of mosaic stone combined into Chaac masks and geometric designs. A stunning visual experience. Recent excavations of the platform base have revealed earlier chambers, arches, and passageways.
On the west side of the Governor’s Palace, on the platform terrace level, are the remains of several structures, some having intact chambers. At the northwest corner of the platform terrace is the small House of the Turtles. This very attractive structure is set on an east/west axis. It faces to the south across the terrace, and features multiple entrances leading into individual chambers, some connected. A single, exterior doorway on the northside of the structure provides a great view looking north across the alleyway of the Ball Court, and directly into the archway of the South Building of the Nunnery Quadrangle. Between the exterior medial and upper molding is a continuous row of colonnettes. The upper molding displays a row of turtles.
The platform terrace in front of the east palace stairway features a few small, ruined structures are on the north and south side. The center of the courtyard has a low, square, altar/dance platform with stair cases on each side. The center of the alter/dance platform holds a nicely carved, double headed jaguar sculpture known as the ‘Throne of the Jaguar’. Between the altar/dance platform and the stairway to the palace is a round column inserted into the courtyard, and now tilted on a steep angle. The east side of the courtyard has a broad stairway that leads to ground level.
The Great Pyramid abuts the southwest corner of the Governor’s Palace terrace and extends slightly over it. The pyramid has an extremely wide staircase and is composed of nine levels. This may have been constructed in recognition of the nine levels of the Underworld. The temple at the top contains geometric designs as well as Chaac masks.
The House of the Doves is an inspiring building with a long decorative open work roof comb. Most of the front portions of the rooms have collapsed. The Maya used both wood and stone lintels in their construction. Most of the wood lintels have shifted resulting in the collapse of these rooms. This however, does not overly detract from the sheer majesty of the building.
Many of these Chaac masks at Uxmal, and throughout the Maya area, contain small indentations on the curved snout to either burn incense or to produce a small flame. This must have been a very moving sight.
There are other complexes and individual structures throughout the site including the House of the Old Woman and the North Group, to name a few. One should plan on a full day here to truly appreciate the grandeur of this important archaeological site.
updated november 2021
courtyard to north of bird quadrangle steve mellard
temple of the columns steve mellard
governprs palace recent excavations inah
nunnery south building steve mellard
nunnery south building arch alejandro williams
nunnery north building lower temple steve mellard
site core google earth
great pyramid keith pomakis.
pyramid of the magician regis lachaume
ball court tato grasso
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quadrangle of the birds steve mellard
east building nunnery group dan himes
house of the doves steve mellard
nunnery quadrangle steve mellard
site map inah
nunnery c.1841 frederich catherwood
palace of the governor steve mellard
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pyramid of the magician. sybz
chicago worlds fair 1933 nunnery carlie collection u of illinois
cemetery group steve mellard